30 July, 2011

The Grand Inquisitor

Well, after that long post on the X-Files, I realized I hadn't even mentioned the episode that had inspired me to write about it in the first place. The finale of Season Three, "Talitha Cumi" is so very impressive. Unlike the rest of the episodes (which generally leave me entertained rather than impressed), this one kind of blew me away. Gah, it's so awesome I kept exclaiming to my preoccupied sister across the room something to that effect every five minutes or so.

Wait for it....

They draw on Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" scene from one of my favorite books, The Brothers Karamazov! Oh my goodness, it was so neat. Another testament (like the Moby Dick references) to the fact that some of the writers, at least, were decently educated. Again, like the last reference, it's actually made intelligently. Comes off very smoothly, makes sense in terms of the show we've seen up to this point, and does a fantastic job of helping us make sense of who the Syndicate is and what they're doing.

The one quibble I had with it is that it's a bit odd to put what I take is an alien hybrid in the "role" of Christ in the scene. Granted, he's being persecuted for his efforts to open Mulder's and Scully's eyes to "the truth", so it kind of works. The really compelling aspect, as I said, however, is what it reveals about the role of the "interrogator", or the "Cigarette Smoking Man". Yet another example of how much easier it is for human beings to make sense of the bad guy than the good guy. Especially when the bad guy is an archetype of human hostility to the "disappointing" savior, as Dostoevsky depicts his inquisitor, but the good guy is actually God incarnate. Bit of an imbalance there in what we're capable of comprehending.

On that note, it's perhaps natural that the heroes of X-Files come off as such compelling characters, while the nature of what they're searching for remains rather nebulous and unconvincing. The good guys we know how to portray are the searchers, the questors, the people who will give up anything to find the truth. When it comes to depicting what they are looking for, though, or to depicting one who actually has some answers, the producers are at a loss. I can hardly blame them much though. I personally think one has to move out of narrative into poetry at that point: after all, Dante and Eliot are some of the only artists to have really achieved any such depiction satisfactorily, and even then only towards the culminations of their artistic endeavors.

23 July, 2011

Another excellent quote

"It seems to me there's so much hubris regarding how much today's Christians worry about saving the world through art. I wish many more of us would brood about how to write a lovely paragraph now and then."
--From the same article as below (Article here

On "Christian" Art

This is from an interview with my cousin. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have grown up in a family where ideas like this are emphasized. Really can't imagine my English major self if I'd somehow missed this crucial point.

"I hate to even make the concession it requires to refer to some movies and stories as "Christian." Practically speaking, I'm not sure what it means to be a Christian story. I know what it is to be a beautiful movie, and this has everything to do with excellence of craft and integrity of theme and story. It makes sense to me that anything that is a beautiful movie should also be esteemed by Christians. I do make the distinction that some stories are sacred in that they are relating Biblical or explicitly religious images and history. Using this language, we could say that there have been sacred stories that are unchristian, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Kingdom of Heaven. . .

The greatest "epiphanies of beauty" (JPII, Letter to Artists) in storytelling today are coming from artists who are outside of any real attachment to a faith community. Movies like the 2006 Best Foreign Oscar film, The Lives of Others. Or Jason Reitman's wonderfully and unintentionally pro-life film, Juno. I have never experienced in any Christian film what Aristotle referred to as "tragic wonder," but I have felt it in Precious, and The Hurt Locker and Sophie Scholl and In the Bedroom and Requiem for a Dream. None of those films were made by Christians, but they are much, much more beautiful and consequently Christian than the banal and badly crafted Christian sub-culture products like Facing the Giants, Bella, Therese, and Fireproof
In short, if we serve the beautiful and honor the story we have the chance of finding both. If we set out, instead to foment a spirit of triumphalism in the Church, then story and beauty will evade us; and also any really lasting good."

15 July, 2011

The X-Files

Yes, yes, yes... I'm slipping. More of a conscious decision than anything. I realized that my extensive reading during the 90s left me pretty much completely ignorant of popular culture at the time. I vaguely realized that Brittney Spears and the Spice Girls existed, though I perceived them through a fog of horror and disgust that persists to this day whenever I'm reminded of their nasally excuses for vocal cords.

But really, one assumes not everything from the 90s is horrid, even if most of the music was. Maybe one should turn to television. It was in its heyday back then, from what I hear. Seinfeld, X-Files. Both on my list to try, but I'm going through the latter first. I have mixed feelings about the series, probably because the series itself is such a mixed bag. You have the abysmally chintzy monster episodes in which Fox Mulder consistently voices the most illogical solution possible while his partner, Dana Scully, insists otherwise even as evidence mounts that Mulder's improbable guess is actually correct. Predictable, and usually preoccupied with scaring the viewer than telling a really good story. There are exceptions even among the monster episodes, of course. One that I saw recently stands out for some particularly interesting (and rare) downtime, when  "Moby Dick" (consistently referenced throughout the series; one of X-Files' good points) is discussed, and an impressively relevant and accurate reading of the book given.

Then there are the "myth" episodes. These tend to be a lot tenser, more plot-driven, and more interesting than the others, if only for the reason that they build on each other as the show progresses: the increased scope of plot is definitely an improvement when it comes to an X-Files-type world (I mean, monsters and aliens in 40 minutes? Please, give us some time to adjust to the fact! And can we really expect so many examples to exist and so few repercussions?). But they also are a mixed bag. Towards the beginning of the series I actually found them more irritating: the political (for lack of a better word) message running through them was naive and annoying. Essentially the United States Government, particularly the military, was portrayed as evil,  hostile to all efforts to let the "truth" (about aliens) out. As the series goes on, that depiction is significantly nuanced, however. One begins to see that it's not so much the government and the military (the vast majority of whom are as ignorant of "the truth" as everyone else, and are now portrayed more sympathetically) as it is the "Syndicate"--a mysterious cabal of men manipulating the forms of our government to make the American people believe what they consider it proper for them to believe. While the former vision of America seemed more typical of 1970s-era hatred of any authority, this development amends the villains to be much more like what I would expect: the men of "superior intellect" who know what is "best" for those beneath them.

These myth episodes are also where the deeper discussions about "truth" and the supernatural come into play. While the series does an unambiguously good job of delving into Mulder's and Scully's motivations and growing determination to know the truth (and I must say, one of the reasons I haven't been turned off by the series yet is the pretty darn decent acting), its tenuous reachings toward truth of some sort are also variable in the extreme. On the one hand you have those lovely episodes in which alien life is the truth. They are coming, they are here, and they want to colonize earth. Horror of horrors. But the admitted silliness of this plot seems antithetical to the seriousness and sincerity with which Mulder, Scully, and their few allies search out the truth.

Perhaps I should edit that, however....Because the strange thing about the show is that while aliens are in some way "the truth", they are much more important to Mulder than they are to Scully. What Scully is concerned with is not so much whether aliens are real, but whether God has a real, palpable presence on earth. The exact type of question you'd expect a fallen-away Catholic to be haunted by. When "miracles" occur, interestingly enough, Scully becomes the believer, and Mulder the skeptic. Somehow, though aliens are not beyond belief for Mulder, God is just a bit too far to go. As the series proceeds, however, not only is Mulder's belief in aliens confirmed; Scully begins to return to her faith. We see the crucifix she wears from day one turning from simply a family keepsake into a symbol of something greater. As her family members die and she herself nearly does in one crucial episode, the reality of life after death returns to crush her former (science-induced, we gather) doubts. Towards the end of the third season, she's returning to confession, where she admits that one of her chief reasons for doubting God has not so much been skepticism as it was the fear that "God is speaking and no one is listening". A rather interesting statement for the 90s, and one that I think may haunt people even now, much more so than the information floods of television, news, and internet would have us think. Though I haven't watched up to that point yet, I understand that she makes a full return to the Church when she discovers she has cancer in the fourth season. I'm interested to see how that will play out.

What I do know is that the sincerity of Scully's personal conversion is hardly matched by a series-wide understanding of what God is. Since the religious episodes are so mixed with the alien episodes, He sort of comes off as just another supernatural thing out there. And the "miracles" which inspire Scully's return are hardly backed up by very excellent theology: I mean, usually, one has the stigmata for a reason. Here it just appears. No one knows why, it's just there. Sure, it's a mystery, but in the real world, God is a little more logical than that.

01 July, 2011

To clarify:

The structure of the argument in the below-mentioned document is unclear from my quotations. Hence, who knows whether I might not be taking that (quite clear) statement out of context.

To ward off any possible suspicions of such faulty arguing, here's their argument, in brief:

  1. They do start, admittedly, with a basic states' rights claim. Interpreting the original U.S. Constitution as that of a compact-style government, they claimed that the right to secede is inherent in the country's foundation. Cool. I don't disagree. What's interesting here is that they too assume the Lockean understanding of secession that I have always believed in: i.e., secession is justified if, and only if the government fails to fulfill its obligations to its citizens. Clearly then, if they are to justify secession, they must, as I have always argued, be capable of proving that the U.S. government was failing in its basic responsibilities to the state of South Carolina.
  2. Their first claim is multipartite. They bring up the fact that not all U.S. states were cooperating in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Okay, legally that might be a problem, despite the immorality of the act. However, individual states, and not the national government, were responsible for this lack of cooperation; while it might have been the duty (again, only legally) for the national government to interfere, this is a pretty minor complaint on which to base secession from the union. Almost like claiming "injustice" on the part of the federal government on a technicality. Just consider what that same horrible, oppressive government would have needed to use to enforce that law, anyway: ummm...army, anyone? So, basically, because the federal government was a monster because it wasn't invading a few uncooperative (but non-secessionist) northern states. But it was also an evil monster for invading states that claimed secession.
  3. It also complained that the government was trying to end slavery. Maybe so (though that would hurt the "Civil War wasn't about slavery" issue), but even so, it was using legal methods. So you get outvoted in the most recent election. So you might lose your slaves. Does that seriously mean you're being tyrannized and having your sacrosanct rights taken away?
  4. The most laughable claim? They admit that they've lived with these problems for 25 years. Why is the situation unacceptable now? Simple: the election of a president who was "planning"  to abolish slavery. Despite Lincoln's promises to work entirely within the bounds of the Constituion, they were convinced that he might pull a fast one on them and take away their God-given right to own other human beings. How can one even take this argument seriously? Preemptive secession? So now it's constitutional to secede simply because you think one of your leaders might someday do something unconstitutional?

Interesting comments from the “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.”

In their own words, the justification for secession was: “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery”. How interesting. Sounds like they're arguing against the right of northern states to be anti-slavery.

One of its other major objections is that New York (well within its rights) had begun to forbid slaveholders to bring slaves within New York State borders. Again, a slavery issue, not states' rights.

Another objection? Some of New England allowed black men to vote, and didn't outlaw abolitionist societies. Again, something that New England states are well within their rights to do, and that does not infringe upon southern states' rights.

Mississippi's secession declaration of 1861? "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world"

Another few words from Lincoln to close off:

“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union... I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free”